A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Tom Wolfe's saga about Sherman McCoy has by now become one of America's favorite urban legends, a cautionary tale about a "master of the universe" who was earning millions on Wall Street and enjoying the pleasures of his wife, his mistress and his seductive lifestyle when he made one fatal wrong turn off the expressway, and found himself in the South Bronx.
There, in a ludicrous comedy of errors, his mistress ran their car into a black youth she thought was attacking them, the youth died, and the case became an overnight sensation. Sherman, whose life was graced with every material and sensual excess, found himself plunged into a publicity circus, suffered the indignity of being jailed, and became the target of white political opportunists and black self-promoters who saw him as a convenient and hateful symbol.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe's novel about McCoy, was savage and sarcastic, especially in the way it dissected the motives of every single character. Brian De Palma's new movie is lacking in just that quality; it is not subtle or perceptive about the delicate nuances of motive that inspire these people. My notion is that Wolfe sees every single one of his characters in exactly the same light, as selfish, grasping swine who want to get their hands on everything they can, and whose approaches are suggested by the opportunities they find around them in whatever walk of life they occupy. The movie doesn't seem to despise anyone all that much.
Sherman McCoy, who makes millions and lives in a Park Avenue duplex, is no less selfish than the others in the novel, but he is not much of a survivor. He does well on the sedate battlefield of Wall Street, but when he runs into real fighters - cops, neighborhood activists, politicians, newspaper reporters, publicity hounds, ambulance-chasing lawyers and his neighbors on the co-op board - he finds he's no match.